NEVER GIVE UP. NEVER GIVE IN.
In 2014, there were two different Winston Churchill projects in development. Producer Douglas Urbanski, who was also Gary Oldman’s manager, kept nagging the actor to play the prime minister, but he dismissed the idea, unable to picture himself as Churchill. At the same time, producer Eric Fellner had his hands on an interesting script by Anthony McCarten who had just written a movie about young Stephen Hawking called The Theory of Everything. Fellner ended up calling Urbanski and they agreed on working together on one movie instead of competing with two. Fellner had the right script, Urbanski had the right actor.
The story takes place over one month, in May 1940. When the Labour opposition demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as a condition for joining a wartime coalition government, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (Oldman), turns out to be the only Conservative leader the opposition will accept. There is widespread distrust in Churchill in the party. The new prime minister is considered a wild card and warmonger; the bloody failure of Gallipoli during World War I is just one of several mistakes that have tarnished his reputation.
Churchill invites his political enemies to join his war cabinet, just to keep an eye on them. His greatest opponent there is Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) who makes an agreement with Chamberlain to keep pushing for peace negotiations with Hitler…
We’re not exactly treading new ground here. Churchill is one of the most oft-filmed political icons; just six months prior to this one came Churchill with Brian Cox in the lead. But these movies are interesting to compare, because while Churchill gets most ingredients wrong Darkest Hour gets almost everything right. Both films portray a politician and man who is not easy to work with. Churchill goes too far and makes us genuinely tired of listening to his whining and outbursts. Darkest Hour finds the right balance, depicting a man far too stubborn to take in other opinions… but Oldman radiates a charisma that is irresistible and for once we see what his wife (very nicely played by Kristin Scott Thomas) sees in Winston. Few earlier films about Churchill have conveyed that part as well. Oldman is arresting as the veteran politician, a brilliant wordsmith who develops a fatherly relationship with his secretary (Lily James), but has his dark moments when the doubt becomes too much to bear. Thanks to the prosthetic makeup the lean star disappears into the part and owns it; the design created primarily by Kazuhiro Tsuji is flawless.
Churchill told a partly fictional story of how the Prime Minister initially opposed Operation Overlord, but Darkest Hour stays closer to the truth (except for a fictional encounter in the Underground that is both corny and endearing) and is consistently compelling thanks to Joe Wright’s experience as a filmmaker. Together with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel he finds beautiful and magnificent visuals to illustrate his portrait of wartime London and Churchill’s environs.
One’s mind easily wanders to Wright’s greatest film, Atonement (2007), which had a now-legendary tracking shot from Dunkirk; this one has a similar achievement, depicting Londoners as Churchill’s car passes by.
Darkest Hour is more than just Oldman, capturing both the core of Churchill and the dilemma of whether to seek war or a convenient peace solution, the latter of which didn’t seem as absurd in 1940 as after the war.
Darkest Hour 2018-Britain. 125 min. Color. Produced by Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay: Anthony McCarten. Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel. Music: Dario Marianelli. Makeup: Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick. Cast: Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill), Lily James (Elizabeth Layton), Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane.
Trivia: John Hurt was originally cast as Chamberlain, but became too sick to play the part.
Oscars: Best Actor (Oldman), Makeup and Hairstyling. Golden Globe: Best Actor (Oldman). BAFTA: Best Actor (Oldman), Make Up & Hair.
Last word: “Joe actually didn’t see me as Gary for three months. We were shooting at Ealing Studios, and they still have the same old dressing rooms, across the corridor from the stage. I would come out of the dressing room having already been through makeup, and there would be day players lining the corridor. You’d have office girls, girls from the typing pool, various guards and soldiers all lined up along the hall, waiting to be called to set, and walking past them was an interesting thing because all the soldiers would suddenly stand upright and come to attention. Ladies would curtsy. People would stare at me because the makeup was so good that you could literally stand an inch from me and you couldn’t tell I was wearing any. It was fascinating to people. It was really like being the Prime Minister for a few months.” (Oldman, Deadline)